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PBS station WGVU TV looks back at 40 years on the air

December 18, 2012
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PBS station WGVU TV looks back at 40 years on the air
WGVU TV gave area students hands-on access to studio equipment during the Be a Broadcaster Camp. Photo via fb.com

Grand Rapids' very own PBS station, WGVU, turned 40 this month. 

The station started operating on Dec. 17, 1972, for four hours a day from 6-10 p.m., as WGVC-TV 35. It grew from one channel to two in 1984 with the addition of Kalamazoo station WGVK-TV.

Today, the WGVU operates two television stations with four program streams under the call letters WGVU. The change to WGVU was made to reflect Grand Valley State College’s conversion to Grand Valley State University.

“Of the top 40 markets, we were the last market that did not have a PBS station at the time,” said Michael Walenta, WGVU general manager. “A group of citizens got together, and — a PBS station has to be licensed to either a community group or an institute of higher education — talked to then (GVSU) President Don Lubbers. President Lubbers then talked to Congressman Jerry Ford and said, ‘We would like to do this.’ As the story goes, Congressman Ford said, ‘Well, if you come up with a half of a million dollars, then I’ll come up with the other half million.’”

Walenta said that Lubbers quickly came up with his half from community fundraising, and Ford followed suit, bringing the station to fruition.

Today, WGVU serves more than 2.4 million viewers in 28 counties 24 hours a day with a wide variety of programming that includes cooking, travel, lifestyle, documentaries, sports, music and films.

In addition to TV, the station also operates NPR station WGVU-FM 88.5 & 95.3, which reaches more than 1.3 million listeners from Grand Rapids to the lakeshore. WGVU-FM had formerly been a student radio station at GVSU. It holds the unique title of being the only oldies formatted NPR station in the country.

“In 1987, WGVU-FM went on the air as a full powered NPR station,” Walenta said. “It was a way to make it a full service TV and radio public broadcasting system.”

Additionally, several radio stations have been donated along the way, including WGVU-AM and WGVS-AM and FM in Muskegon.

WGVU has experienced the typical industry challenges, particularly changing technology.

“I think you can never be stagnant,” Walenta said. “That goes for any business, but the broadcast business continually evolves. When the station first started, it was a broadcast station, and you would get us either over the air or over cable, and everybody had a TV or two at home and that was it. Now, you have how many channels at home, and you can watch things on your iPad and your mobile phone, and you’ve got Hulu, Netflix and Redbox. There are so many different program delivery systems. So (we’re) trying to stay relevant in all of that.”

To meet the challenge, WGVU developed the INGAGE Committee, which stands for inclusion, health, arts, veterans and education, and Walenta said that more than 400 volunteers are actively reaching out in the community and focusing on these areas.

Funding continues to be an issue for PBS and NPR stations, particularly the often-heard threat of cutting federal funding. The WGVU station receives 60 percent of its funding from individual donors in West Michigan.

“If federal funding were to go away, and this conversation has come up, unfortunately, over many, many years and is quite a detractor, but you are really looking at $1.34 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. to fund every PBS and NPR station in the country,” he said.

Walenta notes the entire operating budget for the corporation for public broadcasting is $445 million, which is an amount that many have argued would not go a long way in funding the federal government.

Though it is a worry, Walenta said, possible federal funding cuts don’t keep him up nights.

“You can’t keep doing this for 40 years with well over 60 percent of your funding coming in every day (from donors) if you are doing something wrong,” he said. “So we are very proud that we are doing something right. We put on the type of programming that people want. Year after year PBS does these Roper polls, and we keep coming up as the second most trusted source in America next to defense. If we can keep holding on to being the second most trusted source, the second best use of taxpayer dollars . . . that says we are doing the right thing.”

The WGVU segment below, on the Holland Museum and Grand Rapids Public Museum, represents the sort of programming the station broadcasts in the region.

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